Every now and again I read short stories and come to the conclusion that I don’t really like them. Yet I keep coming back because I hope to learn from them. Short stories are supposed to be the essence of the writing craft — deliberately structured, with prose polished and refined, where every word counts, etc.
But even in the stories where all the above is true, for me, they fall short on the emotional level. Short stories are just too short to allow me a relationship with their protagonists and to make me care. They’re too urgent to let me sink into their world. In fiction I look for the experience of transcendence — being somewhere else, seeing things through someone else’s eyes — and short stories rarely provide it.
Recently I read stories by Joyce Carol Oates from the collection The Female of the Species. Some of them fell into they-just-don’t-do-it-for-me category but there were a couple of stories that ‘did it’ almost. But even those left me unsatisfied. The best I can describe the feeling is that it was like looking at a pencil sketch and wanting to see the painting finished in color. I wanted the short story long.
So given all that, you might wonder why the hell do I write short stories? Well, for one thing because I’m not ready yet to write a novel. But also because it’s fun. Writing a short story takes a long time and there is so much more to it than what ends up in the final draft. So as a writer I do get to spend enough time with the characters to care for them, a lot. I know all the backstories. I meticulously invent the world, all the small details, even if they make only a cameo appearance in the manuscript. For the days, weeks, sometimes months that it takes me to complete a short story I inhabit its world and see it through the eyes of my protagonists. It’s that sensation of transcendence again. And it’s addictive.